A woman portrayed as a matryr when she died from an illegal abortion after Medicaid funds were cut off may have been simply trying to keep her pregnancy a secret when she slipped across the border to have the operation performed in the back of a Mexican pharmacy.
That possibility has been raised by the woman's personal physician and the head of a Planned Parenthood clinic where she had been a client before she died Oct. 2 in McAllen, Tex.
Both said in interviews that they would have arranged a free low-cost legal abortion for the unmarried, 27-year-old woman if shw had sought their help - which she didn't.
Furthermore, the physician, Dr. Homero Rivas, said that in 1975 the woman had not sought a Medicaid abortion, for which she was eligible, when she was also pregnant out of wedlock.
Rivas and Lila Burns, who directs a Planned Parenthood clinic, said it is common for woman in the area to seek cheap illegal abortions across the border in Mexico to keep friends, neighbors and relatives from finding out about them.
"We had this problem long before Medical abortions and we'll have it long after them," said Rivas.
Reports that the woman's death might not have been linked to the cut-off of funds for government-paid abortions first appeard in Ob. Gyn. News, a medical newspaper for obstetricians and gynecologists published in Bethesda.
In a copyrighted story in its Dec. 1 issue, the newspaper said investigators from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta knew the woman "hard gone to Mexico for another abortion two years ago" but disregarded this information "without making it public."
Dr. Julian Gold, who headed a four member CDC team that investigated the case, conceded in an interview that he knew the woman had been pregnant in 1975, but said investigators could not establish if she had an abortion in Mexico, or elsewhere.
Gold's report said that this year when the woman "indicated to her physician that she might be pregnant, he informed her that Medicaid no longer paid for abortions. She subsequently obtained an induced abortion in Mexico."
The Mexician-American woman, the mother of a four-year-old daughter, died, Oct. 2, six days after being admitted to a McAllen, Tex., hospital with chills, fever, anemia and jaundice.
The incident led to widespread outcries in Congress and in the press over the cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortions. A memorial services was held in Washington for the woman at which one spokesman said: "The only thing that stood between her and life was a Medicaid card that wouldn't buy her an abortion she chose to have." Gold said he still stands behind his report. He based his conclusions on extensive on-site interviews, particularly one with a cousin of the dead woman. "He had spoken to her day or two before she went to Mexico and he said she went there because of the cutoff," he said.
Four other women, two of whom carried Medicaid cards, also suffered complications requiring hospitalization after illegal abortions at the same bordertown pharmacy. Only one of the four talked with investigators; she told them she had gone to Mexico to keep the matter secret.
Neither family physician Rivas nor Planned Parenthood official Burns talked to the dead woman about her reasons for going to Mexico. Burns said she believes the woman wanted to protect her privacy because she's certain that she knew free or low-cost abortions were available through the Planned Parenthood clinic.
"It's only speculation," she added. "Who knows why someone goes to Mexico for an abortion? Is it money? Or is it that they don't want anyone to know about it?"
The abortion the dead woman received in Reynosa, Mexico, reportedly cost $40. The going legal rate for abortions in McAllen is said to be from $200 to $250.